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June 25, 2005 Los Angeles Times
THE NATION
Lobbyist's E-Mail Trail of Billing, Status, Charity

As he was allegedly bilking Indian tribes of millions, Jack Abramoff bankrolled a Jewish school and fretted about his social standing.
By Mary Curtius, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON In 2002, even as he raked in millions of dollars in allegedly excessive fees from Indian tribes and other clients, Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff found himself in a financial crunch.
   "I am concerned that while you are being very good to others and building a school, we are not taking care of your family financial needs," his accountant wrote in a November 2002 e-mail. "Even with another few million coming in the next few months we still need to tighten up."
   Once closely allied with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Abramoff is under investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and a federal grand jury for allegedly bilking Indian tribes that were seeking political influence in Washington. He has insisted he did nothing wrong.
   This week, Senate investigators released hundreds of e-mails that shed light not only on Abramoff's multilayered financial dealings, but the complex life of the man at the center of an ethics scandal that had cast a shadow over DeLay.
   The e-mails portray Abramoff as so focused on his social status that he asked a rabbi to falsify awards to improve his chances of becoming a member in an exclusive Washington club, and so concerned about the quality of Jewish education in the Washington area that he founded his own Orthodox school.
   Even as he boasted in e-mails of padding bills and falsifying expenses to tribal clients, Abramoff poured millions into the school, sent thousands of dollars a month to equip Jewish militias in the West Bank, donated to charity and sent a monthly stipend to at least one relative.
   In a December 2002 e-mail, the accountant reminded him that Abramoff's wife liked to say: "There is a reason why Hashem [God] gave Jack the ability to earn so much money."
   Gail Halpern, the accountant, went on to warn that the lobbyist's commitment to the Eshkol Academy was a tremendous drain on his finances. He opened the academy in suburban Maryland in 2002 as an elite, boys-only boarding school offering a high-quality Jewish education.
   Noting that he was spending about $200,000 a month to cover rent and salaries at the school, which had a peak enrollment of about 100 students, Halpern wrote: "Please don't get too upset with me asking you this but is it at all possible for you to suspend your kindness and generosity until we have this Eshkol matter under control?''
   Abramoff closed the school in 2004 after questions were raised in the press about his financial dealings with Indian tribes.
   In the December 2002 e-mail, Halpern advised Abramoff to end his $3,560 monthly stipend to Shmuel Ben Zvi, a Jewish settler, and to stop buying "spy equipment," including night vision goggles and camouflage, which Ben Zvi was using to equip paramilitary units in the West Bank.
   She also urged Abramoff to stop sending $2,000 a month to his cousin and another stipend of an unspecified amount to a rabbi, and to "hold off on any other charitable contributions for awhile every small bit will help."
   But Abramoff resisted: "I can't suspend [Ben Zvi] on short notice nor my cousin," he wrote back. "We will just have to make more money."
   And that he did, in what Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), the ranking Democrat on the Indian Affairs Committee, said was an arrangement that constituted "fraud on a pretty grand scale, even by Washington standards."
   Investigators are still trying to untangle Abramoff's web of financial dealings with a business partner, Michael Scanlon.
   Senate investigators have established a paper trail of e-mails, invoices and other documents that, along with testimony, indicates Abramoff established a secret partnership with Scanlon. The documents suggest that the pair lined their pockets with millions of dollars in questionable fees from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and other clients.
   Under the arrangement, dubbed "gimme five" by Abramoff and Scanlon, Abramoff would retain a client, then bring in Scanlon as an independent consultant, records show. Scanlon would then allegedly charge exorbitant fees for his services and expenses in representing tribal interests and secretly split much of the money with Abramoff.
   In 2002, Scanlon's firm paid Abramoff $13.5 million in "referral fees" under the "gimme five" arrangement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said at this week's hearing.
   Based on the documents and testimony, the investigators also believe that Abramoff and Scanlon financed congressional junkets by funneling money extracted from tribes through nonprofit organizations.
   The question surrounding DeLay is whether some of his overseas trips were improperly financed by Abramoff. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing.
   The e-mails released this week show contradictory sides of Abramoff. In some, he is the brash lobbyist, urging Scanlon to push the Choctaws ever harder for money. In others, he is more introspective. When he learned the law firm he had left had issued an update on the status of former employees, Abramoff messaged a friend: "I'm just surprised I am not under, 'dead, disgraced or in jail.' "
   In one exchange, Abramoff approached Rabbi Daniel Lapin, director of the nonprofit group Toward Tradition, about falsifying awards for him. On its website, the group is described as an educational institution "working to advance our nation toward the traditional Judeo-Christian values that defined America's creation and became the blueprint for her greatness."
   Abramoff, who at one point served on Toward Tradition's board of directors, explained in an e-mail that he had been nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club, an exclusive Washington social group. "Problem for me is that most prospective members have received awards and I have received none" Abramoff said in a Sept. 15, 2000, e-mail to Lapin.
   "I was wondering if you thought it possible that I could put that I have received an award from Toward Tradition with a sufficiently academic title, perhaps something like Scholar of Talmudic studies?" Abramoff asked. It would "be even better if it were possible that I received these in years past, if you know what I mean."
   Lapin responded: "Let's organize your many prestigious awards so they're ready to 'hang on the wall.' "
   In an interview Friday, Lapin said his response was "tongue in cheek," and he never brought the issue of awards for Abramoff to the board of Toward Tradition. "There was never any discussion, no one took it seriously at all on our end," he said.
   Lapin, a prominent conservative who works closely with Christian evangelical groups, said he had known Abramoff for years and introduced him to DeLay. He said he thought media accounts of Abramoff's financial dealings had given an incomplete picture of the man.
   It may be hard for some in the media to understand what motivated Abramoff, Lapin said, because, "There's no Ferraris here. There's no women. There's no yachts."
   Despite all that has been written about Abramoff's business dealings, the lobbyist "keeps eluding" easy definition, Lapin said. "Who is he?"
   Choctaw officials think they have their answer.
   In testimony read by Choctaw officials to the Indian Affairs Committee Wednesday, Chief Phillip Martin said that for years the tribe trusted that Abramoff was representing its interests in Washington.
   Only after the FBI approached them last summer, Martin said, did the tribe come to believe that Abramoff and Scanlon "engaged in what appears to be a consistent pattern of kickbacks, misappropriated funds, payments induced under false pretenses and padded billings, all orchestrated by Mr. Abramoff . "
   It was, said Donald Kilgore, the Choctaw's attorney general, "a blatant, calculated scheme to defraud a client."

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